Mudlark No. 51 (2013)

Imminent Domain

Dams create power by holding back
the forward rush of rivers. In the news,
there are photos out of South America,
old women who won’t leave 
the land troops have come to claim, 
for construction. Their bodies
pause the flood, for a few hours.
See the strange proportions
of power, how strong the will to hold back.


On summer outings I swam over houses
in Carolina. Whole towns lay below
our lakes, but I didn’t think of it as home
to the largest engineering project in the world.
Fontana Dam had spanned our river
with a wall, a sleek structure, larger, stronger
than the greatest rock faces, which were
creased, had faults, could fall.

The sight of rock crushers biting
into mountains was appealing if you were
angry at someone, a historian wrote.
And soon enough, there was cause to be—
for one dam, thirteen hundred families
evicted, ninety cemeteries dug up.

Shaped like a butterfly, 
that’s the Tennessee Valley. But it is no 
flighted, light thing. My thoughts should swim
with dark, hearths gone cold, emptied graves, 
fish slipping slick-bellied over stones, 
when I turn on an electric lamp. 


Dams  up and down this valley. Dams
for Surinam, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama,
Patagonia—three hundred new ones proposed
today. Or maybe the number has changed. 
It will have increased. Already, so many rivers
are dammed that the earth is thrown off.
It’s tilting on its axis, the angle
measurably altered.

Or is this not about change? Can I say
nothing ever is over? People now 
are not so different than before. I pause 
to watch my reflection in water. It warps 
with some shift, goes strange, then stands again, 
and I am reminded of an arrogant, younger self, 
or a relative years gone. Who doesn’t live
in the sway of the power of what’s pent up 
behind them? 


So the people on the continents 
below ours want a stop, to stay
where they speak their rare languages,
in rain forests, among orchids still unnamed.

What Fontana families have been asking for,
for more than fifty years, is to have roads
built to those cemeteries still above water,
the foot paths to which did not show on maps
and were cut off long ago. They want to go back
to their dead.

Let me keep it. Let me get it back.
Aren’t our feelings common?
That I’m living on the shore beyond
where I belong, that I just passed
over it in a loud motor boat.


Power always is sent to serve regions other
than where it is made. Still, some dam designers, 
calling themselves, Engineers, enemies of error,
meant well. What work but building
was there left for locals, with the farm land 
eroded? Everyone was trying 
to hold things in place. 

I have done as much. Didn’t I
spend hot childhood days damming 
up creeks, feeling like a creator,
maybe even a savior, piling debris to slow
water into a little pool to float in a little while?


At Fontana, in spring, lines of daffodils
lead into the lake, along where flights
of stairs had been, to the drowned town.

There is much to regret, but let be the love
for what was. I won’t follow that path
down. But I would admire the bulbs
of surviving daffodils. Also the blazes
of color on the cheeks of tribes
come to the cities in protest, their timeless
tattoos, what looks like the past
storming the streets.

Rose McLarney | And Inside Winged Beings Sleep
Contents | Mudlark No. 51 (2013)